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Intensifying Social Accountability of Corporates in India

In a bid to make companies progressively accountable in the social panorama, the government has been modifying the provisions of Corporate Social Responsibility (“CSR”) ever since its introduction. Amendments have been made in section 135 of the Companies Act, 2013 (“the Act”), The Companies (Corporate Social Responsibility) Rules (“the Rules”) and Schedule VII (“Schedule”) of the Act by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (“MCA”), from time to time.

While the earlier amendments to section 135 of the Act and the Rules were mostly clarificatory in nature or were relating to the inclusion of certain activities relating to COVID – 19 as the contribution made towards  CSR, the amendments to section 135 of the Act inserted by the Companies (Amendment) Act, 2019 and the Companies (Amendment) Act, 2020 and notification of The Companies (Corporate Social Responsibility) Amendment Rules, 2021 (“the Amended Rules”), both effective from January 22, 2021, has brought about a radical change in the treatment of unspent CSR amount, among other amendments, which is dealt with in this write-up.

  1. CSR applicability extended to newly incorporated companies as well:

Sub-section (5) of section 135 provides that every company crossing the threshold limits prescribed in section 135(1) has to necessarily spend at least 2% (two percent) of the average net profits of the company made during the immediately preceding three financial years. By way of inclusion to section 135 (5), newly incorporated companies that cross the threshold limits prescribed under section 135(1) of the Act have also been brought within the ambit of compliance with CSR provisions.

  1. Compliance in respect of unspent CSR amount:

A brief outline of the amendments relating to the treatment of unspent amount is provided below:

 

  1. Penalty for non-compliance of sub-sections (5) or (6) of section 135 of the Act:

The newly-inserted sub-section (7) of section 135 of the Act deals with a penalty for non-compliance of provisions of sub-section (5) or (6). It is pertinent to note that the provisions of Companies (Amendment) Act, 2019 had prescribed for imprisonment for a term extending to three years, apart from a fine that may be imposed, on the failure of a company to comply with the provisions of sub-sections (5) or (6) which relates to transfer of unspent amount other than ongoing project and transfer of amount towards ongoing project respectively.

Understandably, there were apprehensions over the proposed implementation of penal provision with imprisonment for CSR activity, and after deliberations, the provision was replaced with a provision in the Companies (Amendment) Act, 2020 which provides only for penalty without imprisonment for non-compliance of sub-section (5) or (6) of section 135 of the Act.

Penalty for the company – twice the amount required to be transferred by the company to the Fund specified in Schedule VII / unspent CSR account (or)

INR 1,00,00,000/- (Indian Rupees One Crore only), whichever is less.

Penalty for every officer of the company who is in default –

one-tenth of the amount required to be transferred by the company to such Fund specified in Schedule VII / unspent CSR account (or) INR 2,00,000/- (Indian Rupees Two Lakhs only), whichever is less.

  1. Power to give general or special directions:

As per sub-section (8) which has been inserted, the Central Government may give general or specific directions to a company or a class of companies, as necessary, which are required to be followed by such company/class of companies.

  1. Constitution of CSR Committee:

CSR committee is not required to be constituted by a company, where the amount it has to spend towards CSR activities is not more than INR 50,00,000/- (Indian Rupees Fifty Lakhs only) and the functions of the CSR committee shall be discharged by the Board of Directors of the company.

  1. Other notable changes in Amended Rules:
  • Registration under sections 12A and 80G of the Income Tax Act, 1961 has been made mandatory for CSR implementation entities (Rule 4(1) of the Amended Rules).
  • Every CSR implementation entity has to file Form CSR – 1 and obtain CSR registration number compulsorily from April 01, 2021 (Rule 4(2) of the Amended Rules).
  • Chief Financial Officer or any person responsible for financial management shall certify that the funds disbursed have been utilized for the purposes and manner as approved by the Board (Rule 4(5) of the Amended Rules).
  • In case of ongoing project(s), the Board shall monitor its implementation and shall make necessary modifications, as required (Rule 4(6) of the Amended Rules).
  • The CSR Committee shall formulate and recommend an annual action plan in pursuance of its CSR policy to the Board comprising the particulars as specified in Rule 5(2) of the Amended Rules, which may be altered at any time during the financial year, based on a reasonable justification.
  • Surplus earned from CSR activities shall be ploughed back into the same project or transferred to the “unspent CSR account” and spent as per the CSR policy and annual action plan or shall be transferred to the Fund specified in Schedule VII of the Act but shall not form part of the business profit of a company (Rule 7(2) of the Amended Rules).
  • The CSR amount may be spent by a company for the creation or acquisition of a capital asset, which shall be held by a CSR implementation entity specified in Rule 4, which has CSR registration number, or beneficiaries of the CSR project or a public authority (Rule 7(4) of the Amended Rules).
  • Annual report on CSR to be in the format specified in Annexure-II of the Rules, in respect of board’s report for the financial year commencing on or after April 01, 2020 (Rule 8 (1) of the Amended Rules).
  • Companies having an average CSR obligation of INR 10,00,00,000/- (Indian Rupees Ten Crores only) or more in the three immediately preceding financial years has to undertake an impact assessment of CSR projects, having an expenditure of INR 1,00,00,000/- (Indian Rupees One Crore only) or more and which have been completed not less than one year before undertaking the impact study, through an independent agency (Rule 8(3) of the Amended Rules).

Ambiguities in the recent amendments:

  1. Whether unspent amounts of previous years have to be transferred?

Although, it has been specifically provided in some of the Amended Rules (viz., implementation of CSR provisions through specified entities, reporting of CSR as provided in Annexure provided in the Amended Rules) that the said amendments are applicable on or after April 01, 2021, the time period from which the provisions relating to the transfer of unspent CSR amount to “unspent CSR account” / Fund is applicable, i.e. whether the unspent CSR amounts relating to the past financial years (from the date of applicability of the CSR provisions to the company) are required to be transferred to the “unspent CSR account” / Fund or only the CSR amount remaining unspent as on March 31, 2021, has to be transferred, has not been explicitly provided in the Act or the Amended Rules.

  1. Whether the outstanding amount of provision created for the unspent amount must be transferred?

The amended provisions do not stipulate whether unspent CSR amounts of the previous financial years have to be transferred to the designated account / Fund in case a company has created a provision in the books of accounts for such unspent amount for the relevant financial years.

The foregoing matters require suitable redressal by the MCA in the form of clarifications or FAQs or amendments to the existing provisions, which will offer a much-needed clarity on these matters.

Conclusion:

With the recent amendments, the CSR provisions have undergone a paradigm shift from “Comply or Explain” to “Comply or Pay” regime as they provide for penalties on failure to transfer unspent CSR amount to the specified account / Fund, whereas earlier, providing reasons for not spending CSR amount was considered adequate compliance. Hence, the said amendments have placed additional responsibilities on corporates.  Having introduced the concept of penalty, it is only appropriate that the MCA addresses the obscurities arising from the amendments at the earliest so that corporates are not caught off-guard in complying with the CSR provisions.

Image Credits: Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

the CSR provisions have undergone a paradigm shift from “Comply or Explain” to “Comply or Pay” regime as they provide for penalties on failure to transfer unspent CSR amount to the specified account / Fund, whereas earlier, providing reasons for not spending CSR amount was considered adequate compliance.

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